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Book on Mughal art and culture explores the dynasty’s rich aesthetic legacy

Jahangir presents Prince Khurram with a turban ornament   | Photo Credit: Royal Collection Trust

It is a masterly painting from the imperial copy of the Padshahnama, Abdul Hamid Lahori’s chronicle of Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s reign. The painter Abid’s Death of Khan Jahan Lodhi fills the page in the first chapter of Reflections on Mughal Art & Culture. Now part of the Royal Library, Windsor Castle, it shows an assembly of generals from Shah Jahan’s court and soldiers peeping over a rocky horizon at the bloody scene unfolding in their midst. Lodhi’s face has a deathly pallor to it, his jowls are flecked with blood, flies buzz over the decapitated heads of others — all punished for rebellion against the emperor.

To the left, clad in armour is Abdullah Khan, who eventually decapitates Lodhi and sends his severed head to Shah Jahan. In the painting, the act of Lodhi ‘seeing’ his own impending death is the first layer, the men who carry it out, the second, and the third layer is the landscape in the distance punctuated by the soldiers.

Many influences

This scene, both violent and riveting, is one of 44 illustrations that fill the Padshahnama, a blend of delicate brushwork influenced by the Persian courts and the realism of the contemporary art of Europe. It is also one of many paintings that has three layers or more, found in most of the art of the Islamicate empires of the Safavids in Iran, the European-based Ottomans, and the Mughals of the Indian subcontinent.

Maharaja Bhim Kunwar by Nanha; Shah Jahan Album

Maharaja Bhim Kunwar by Nanha; Shah Jahan Album   | Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The gap between what the painting conveys and what it reveals is what Kavita Singh, Professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, presents in the first chapter of the book, co-published by K.R. Cama Oriental Institute and Niyogi Books.

Edited by Roda Ahluwalia, an independent scholar of South Asian art, who has taught previously at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, and now teaches Mughal, Deccani and Pahadi painting at Jnanapravaha, Mumbai, the 350-page tome is a visual tour de force of the rich art and culture of the Mughal world. Interspersed with paintings and photographs of medieval treasures, the text is a compilation of 13 papers presented at the annual seminar of the KR Cama Oriental Institute in 2017.

Located in Mumbai and inaugurated in 1916, the institute is a treasure trove of information on Oriental studies, with nearly 26,000 books in various languages and 2,000 manuscripts in the Avestan, Pahlavi, Zend and Persian languages.

The book opens with the Shield of Akbar, part of the Sir Ratan Tata Collection, a reminder of how the Mughals thundered out of the steppes of Asia to establish over three centuries of rule in India. Abul Hasan’s ‘Emperor Jahangir Triumphing Over Poverty’, a work of opaque watercolour, gold and ink on paper, where Jahangir draws a bejewelled bow, rests beautifully on the book jacket. This unending cycle of sword slashes and arrow strikes was peppered with the Mughals’ love for art and architecture, and they used their immense resources to make it part of their identity. This aesthetic legacy influences Indian culture to this day.

‘Reflections on Mughal Art and Culture’ published by Niyogi Books and The KR Cama Oriental Institute

‘Reflections on Mughal Art and Culture’ published by Niyogi Books and The KR Cama Oriental Institute   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

 

The chapters challenge ideas, reflect and compare artistic norms of the Safavids, Ottomans and the Mughals, probing three fields — painting, architecture and decorative arts — especially the Mughals’ interest in commissioning illustrated manuscripts and dynastic histories that led to the development of court painting in the 17th century.

Multiple themes

Mika Natif explores the relationship among gender, dynastic power and visuality by studying the images of Akbar’s mother Hamida Banu Begum and foster mother Mahim Anga. Roda explores the works of the relatively obscure Nanha, a painter known for portraiture but more importantly for training his nephew Bishndas, a leading light in Jahangir’s court. Subhash Parihar probes figurative Mughal murals, especially the biblical themes painted by Mughal painters and mentioned by the Jesuits who visited the imperial court.

A chapter that draws attention is the one where Ursula Sims-Williams, lead curator of the Persian Collection in the British Library, discusses the history of the Imperial Library of the Mughals. Tracing the history of the Khamsa manuscript from the time it comes into India from Herat to its ownership by the later Mughal emperor, Muhammad Shah, its passage into the hands of Richard Johnson, an officer of the East India Company, its purchase by the British Museum in 1908, and its present location at the British Library is, in short, the story of many Mughal manuscripts that journeyed outside the subcontinent during the chaos of the 1857 revolt.

Pendant; nephrite jade set with rubies and emeralds in gold; 17th century

Pendant; nephrite jade set with rubies and emeralds in gold; 17th century   | Photo Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum, London

 

The idea of the Mughal gardens, — the charbagh; lapidary arts and the perfumes sent to and from imperial courts in bejewelled containers; the sack of Delhi by Nadir Shah (1739), which scattered craftsmen to regional centres such as Awadh; and the common thread of Turko-Mongol-Persianate heritage that runs through the three empires are discussed.

Emperor Humayun and Hindal Mirza

Emperor Humayun and Hindal Mirza   | Photo Credit: Staatsbbliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin

 

The display of these treasures, now housed in centres across the world, ranging from the Chester Beatty Museum, Dublin, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Victoria &Albert Museum, London, lends the tome the character of a coffee table book. And the impressive bibliography drawn from a glut of literature and calligraphy marks it as a scholarly work. The result is a blockbuster survey of Mughal art.


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Printable version | Oct 21, 2021 10:46:26 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-authors/mughal-art-culture-kr-cama-oriental-institute-niyogi-books-roda-ahluwalia/article35876102.ece

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